By Tara Ford, Director of Marketing Communications, Catholic Charities of San Antonio
No one really knows the trauma, sadness, and grief of a teenage boy traveling alone through another country in search of a hopeful future in the United States. To overcome trauma, one needs positive relationships, a healthy lifestyle, and strong community support. One needs the support of individuals who truly care.
On March 31, 2021, federal officials called on Catholic Charities of San Antonio to assist with volunteer support for unaccompanied migrant youth crossing the border. The city opened Freeman Coliseum expecting 2,000 boys, ages 13-17, and the government provided all the basic needs including fresh food, clothing, safe shelter, medical care, and mental health assistance. For years, Catholic Charities of San Antonio has assisted families and children with immigration, but this was different. Previously, families arrived at the office for 24 hours or less to eat, call families, schedule travel, and choose clothing as they continued their journey to their host family. This time, hundreds of young boys would stay for weeks, needing compassionate care until they could be reunited with their sponsor families.
The boys look healthy and their needs are being taken care of. Their biggest problem right now is that they are bored. We want to show them compassion when they are in our care. We want our volunteers to get to know them and comfort them. The kids have been through a lot to be here and they deserve the love, respect, and dignity that we can offer. And sometimes, that can be a simple game or soccer ball so they feel as close to normal as possible while they are here.
Antonio Fernandez, Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of San Antonio
Hundreds of people from around the country registered to volunteer, and even more people sent activity books, chapter books, games, crayons, origami books and paper, soccer balls, bibles, and rosaries.
At San Antonio’s Freeman Coliseum, the boys ate fresh, warm meals regularly. They rested, slept, and talked among themselves on cots with clean bedding. They played soccer in open spaces and painted or crafted at various stations around the expo hall. Long walls of the expo hall were covered in coloring sheets and bright, detailed drawings and paintings of their home countries. Eager to learn English, the boys used flash cards and engaged volunteers to help them learn new words and phrases. Even more impressive, they prayed at makeshift altars and read the Bible together.
Consistency and routine are crucial elements to the healing process. To foster healing, Catholic Charities USA asked sisters from the Leadership Conference of Women Religious to travel to San Antonio to offer compassionate volunteer support to help engage the teenage boys in meaningful activities and relationships during their stay. With their lifelong mission to serve others, this was such an impactful way of transforming the life of each person they encountered.
Sister Paula Rose Jauernig, Sister of Charity from Kansas, provided the consistent care needed for the boys to feel welcome and safe. She offered help to other leaders at the site and often served as an English teacher, helping the boys communicate with leaders. “I was moved the first day I was here,” she said. “I saw the boys praying for each other as one left. When another boy left to be with his family, he had all the other boys sign his sweatshirt. They exchanged phone numbers with the intent to stay in touch.” She added that she was joyful when the boys recognized her and greeted her warmly.
I was struck by how healthy they look. If you look at their drawings, you can see the state of their minds. There is so much bright color in their paintings representing their hope and joy for their future. Moments of engagement are so powerful and they are so content by our presence.Sister Juana Encalada
Sister Juana Encalada and Sister Janet Hockman, both Maryknoll Sisters from New York, found the same experience in service at the temporary shelter. Relying on her faith, Sister Janet mentioned, “I trust we are coming to the right place at the right time. The kids are well taken care of, but it was interesting to see the kindness they have toward each other. They are happy when one leaves and they comfort when one is sad to still be here. We see relationships forming between them. We must continue to be open to diversity because we value human life.”
The experience that volunteers have had caring for the migrant youth has been powerful, especially for the sisters. Sister Paula Rose said, “This is a very empowering atmosphere with so many volunteers involved. I think Catholic Charities needs to put a gold star on their chart, because you passed the test.” She added, “God knows our needs before we ask for them. People ask why I came, and I ask ‘Why not?’ Are we ever blessed to be chosen! Thank you, Jesus, for picking us.”